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Online learning a change, but rewarding

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Earlier this year, I made the ill-timed decision to go back to college. Had I known it would be such a challenging year at the newspaper, I probably would have chosen a better time to do it, but I soon learned it's the kind of thing you have to just jump into. And now I'm glad I did.

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I'm pursuing a management degree and possibly an MBA down the line through Bemidji State University. Because of the distance, the classes are solely online. That was a scary proposition, because I've never really known any sort of education delivery system other than a frumpy-dressed professor droning on about calculus equations or sociological trends in front of a classroom packed with tired undergrads. I had no idea what to expect from classes delivered online -- were they a video lecture you watched? Were they regular courses whose correspondence was all over e-mail? Would I be wearing a Bemidji State sweatshirt and a virtual reality helmet that linked me in to an all-powerful computerized instructor?

The answer is the classes are delivered a little differently by each professor. Some have you read the textbook and complete assignments such as papers completely at your own pace. Others assign specific weekly schedules and have online tests. But in all cases, there is at least some flexibility, which is crucial given some often weird hours with my working schedule.

Another thing I learned is that college is hard. Well, at least it seems difficult to my 37-year-old brain, especially since it's been a good 15 years since I did anything resembling studying. There's just a large work load, and that's OK. That's what I signed up for. Unlike being in college after graduating high school, this time I'm doing it solely for the knowledge. I don't expect it to lead to a job. I'm not doing it because I'm expected to do it. I'm just doing it because I want to.

I sometimes have to remind myself of that. It's not always easy to come home from a long work week and spend a Friday night with my nose in an Operations Management textbook, learning equations for mean arrival times of customers or learning about RFID tracking in a supply chain. However, I have to admit I occasionally have a geeky eureka moment when I realize something that I've just learned can be applied at work.

Being an online-only student is, well, weird. When I think of being a college student, I think of studying in the library or playing hacky-sack on the quad. I've never even visited the Bemidji State campus, yet I'm a student there. Often I'm reading a newspaper article about colleges and BSU is mentioned, and it takes me a while to register, "Hey, I'm a student there!" I've never met any of my professors. I've never laid eyes on another student.

It's also weird to have life experience to apply the knowledge I'm learning too. For many students, management is all theory, and they speak in idealistic terms. For me, it's what I do when I get up in the morning, so I have something to apply and compare it to. It reminds me of a Saturday morning, four-hour history class I had when I was an undergrad at the University of St. Thomas back in the early 1990s. Many of the students in that class were referred to as "new college," which is a nice way of saying older. I absolutely loved the interaction in that class, which was U.S. History from 1960 to present, because many of the people in that class had actually lived through those years. When we talked about the Pentagon papers and the Tet Offensive, there were students who had actually fought in the Vietnam War. It's not an easy thing to get a 19-year-old out of bed at 7 a.m. to attend a four-hour class, but this one was so interesting I'd pop out of bed for it.

Now I realize I am that guy, and it's kind of fun.

One thing people often ask me is if it's expensive. It is, but there's help. Though I didn't qualify for any needs-based aid from the college, the much-maligned federal stimulus bill has an American Opportunity Tax Credit that will help pay for an old codger like me to get some more education. It was greatly expanded from the old Hope Credit and Lifetime Learning Credit, and it will be a help. So I guess the timing wasn't that bad, after all.

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